HAMLET — Although he wasn’t a native of Richmond County, Bert Unger made it his home for more than 50 years.
Unger died Thursday at the age of 80. A native of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, Unger served four years in the U.S. Air Force and was honorably discharged in 1960.
It was then he moved to Hamlet and worked as a photographer and engraver for the Hamlet News Messenger, until it was acquired by the Cadieu family, who owned the Richmond County Daily Journal, in 1967.
“We were very glad…to pick up Bert” and others from the Hamlet paper, said former owner Neal Cadieu.
Unger started out at the Daily Journal as sports editor and photographer, transferring to the news department and working his way up to managing editor.
Before moving to news, he covered the Richmond County Board of Commissioners, as former editor Glenn Sumpter explained in a column upon Unger’s retirement. Since it was outside of his sports and photography duties, Sumpter said, Unger was paid per column inch for those stories.
“This led to some very long stories and the only ongoing dispute Bert and I ever had,” he wrote. “I kept trying to cut the stories back to a reasonable length, and every time I cut something, Bert glared at me as if I were snatching bread out of his children’s mouths.
“I solved that problem by promoting him to managing editor, where covering the county commission would be part of his regular work. That resulted in shorter stories and a stress-free relationship.”
Unger was part of the Daily Journal’s “Golden Era,” along with Sumpter, Clark Cox and Catherine Monk.
“Bert was part of a team…part of an outstanding group of writers,” Cadieu said. “He was great for the newspaper and very active in the community.”
His work was recognized by the North Carolina Press Association with awards for photography, sports writing, feature writing and editorial page content, and by the Associated Press for feature writing.
Unger retired as managing editor in 1998 after 31 years at the Daily Journal.
He would meet up with other former staffers Alvin Cauthen, Tom McCallum, Irvin Long and Randy Jarrell (who died in January) at McDonald’s every Friday morning at 8 a.m. to “hash over the world’s affairs.”
“He was a good person and a good writer,” recalled Cauthen, who worked as a graphic artist at the paper. “He was comical at times. We had a lot of good times together.”
While working at the paper, Unger earned an associate degree from Richmond Community College in 1979, graduating with honors and a 4.0 GPA.
But his association with the college didn’t end there, as he went on to be a member of the Board of Trustees, and president of the Richmond Community College Foundation.
“Bert was an important part of this college for more than 20 years,” said Dale McInnis, RCC president. “He served as chair of the board’s Building and Grounds Committee for many years, guiding us through many construction projects. He worked tirelessly as a foundation director, even serving a term as president.
“Bert had a real empathy for the challenges and barriers many of our students face. He real advocate for our students, and he was personally invested in everything this college did,” McInnis continued. “He had a sharp and inquisitive mind, and was not afraid to ask hard questions, but he always kept a great sense of humor. He was a true friend to me and to Richmond Community College, and I will always be grateful to have known him and learned from him.”
Also while working at the paper, Unger was first elected to the Hamlet City Council, serving from 1984-91 and again from 1999-2003.
“We never did have a sense that it compromised the newspaper,” Cadieu said.
Unger also served as a member of Hamlet’s Planning and Zoning Board, Board of Adjustments, Senior Center Advisory Board and the ABC Board of Directors.
“I think Bert Unger, having served with him for many years, was the finest definition of a public servant I have ever met,” said former Hamlet mayor Abbie Covington. “He was good to the absolute core.”
Covington added that Unger “was an asset to the city council and to the people of Hamlet.”
Sports never left his interests either. He was president of both Hamlet Little League and Babe Ruth League, commissioner of the Hamlet Pony League and state commissioner of the Babe Ruth League, as well as chairman of the Richmond County Recreation Commission.
Unger was also very active with the Lions Club, serving as president of the Hamlet, Cordova and Pee Dee clubs, as well as district governor for Lions Club International.
Other civic involvement included being: president of Hamlet Jaycees; on the boards of directors for the Hamlet Chamber of Commerce, Richmond County Chamber of Commerce, McLaurin Center, Sandhills Manor Group Home, Richmond Memorial Hospital and the Richmond County Heart Association; chairman of the Richmond County Tourism Development Authority; and a member of the Richmond County Health Carolinans Task Force.
In 2006, Unger was recognized as Richmond County Citizen of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce.
“He was in so much stuff, he stayed busy,” Cauthen said. “He’ll be missed by a lot of people.”
Reach William R. Toler at 910-817-2675.